After the heat of summer and the seemingly endless shout of sunshine, the turning of the season into autumn is a huge relief. Mornings are foggy, fires have been lit and smoke rises up to the stars, that glitter on into the dark of morning.
The cat is reluctant to venture out . He hates wet dew on his paws, but eventually the sun creeps up, the world wakes and slowly he slinks out to start the autumn day.
The great clouds of martins and swallows have thinned to just a few birds catching up on the reverse migration back to Africa. The starlings have remembered the uncollected apples in the orchard behind the house and are wheezing their anticipation of a feast. Jays have appeared and are raucous in the tall trees.
Days of rain are forecast, but today the sun has climbed into a peerlessly clear sky and the michaelmas daisies are star burst bright with bees. A hornet patrols ceaselessly looking for a bee to catch and the late gate keeper butterfly keeps far away from it. Hummingbird hawk moths feed on September nectar and the morning glory winds up and up to the end of every stick.
The news of Russian mobilization of reluctant and unreluctant men is chilling I think of the unharvested vegetables ripening in the gardens of destroyed Ukrainian homes.
On a warm September day it seems the very best of times, but Dickens could always balance his opening sentences to linger in the mind.
People are a huge part of the ecosystem in which we live and good news about health is so often smoothered in all the bad news. So here is a fantastic good news story from Africa . Something to really enjoy!
This dragon fly laid her eggs on a mossy stone . I always assumed they deposited their eggs into water and if anything should know the difference between stone and water, then a dragonfly should. She choose the stone. Maybe their life cycle is more complex than I imagine. I could look it up. I could read about it in books and on line, or I could just watch and wonder. Sometimes that is all I want to do: just watch and wonder.
It rained and hailed this week. The pot of basil was shredded, but the broken leaves were preserved in a bed of hail under the stalks. They were cooked in spaghetti bolognese for dinner.
The first migrating warblers are turning up in the garden, feeding for a while on their way home to Africa.
After the rain, the heavy phone cables strung across the road,glittered with rain drops sliding along the cable like iridescent jewels on a dowager duchess’s necklace.
I swear I could hear the soil absorbing the sweet rain and the cracks healing.
It has been so sunny here that the light is positively Mediterranean and so bright, that sometimes one longs for the night.
I haven’t been posting much, as the endlessly dry nights have meant non stop mothing and then hours identifying and recording what has appeared. This is a delight for me, but it is also time consuming, so I am sharing a few delights from the last few days by way of a blog. There have been plenty of smaller and less brightly coloured moths in the trap, but I am sparing you some of my obsession!
The mornings are cool and dry and the warm pine trees smell like Greece. Cans of water are lugged to the vegetables and the roses sulk at not getting their fair share.
The fly door slams.
More tea is taken out to the shade. The butterflies wake up and the buddleia draws them in with heady perfume and endless nectar. The lazy flap of a fritillary butterfly speeds up as it swerves a predatory hornet.
The cat climbs onto the roof of the shed to survey her domain.
A pink petunia flower is caught in the net of a spider and pirouettes in the breeze. It continues to dance and turn when the wind drops and high above, a spider laboriously cuts the flower free of the threads and the pink skirts swirls slowly down to the ground.
The breeze returns and the wind chimes ripple . No one shouts, no mowers, blowers or saws disturb the summer air.
It has been brutally hot and it is going to get worse, so while we wait and pray for our leaders to wake up to the reality of climate change, what can we do personally to stay cool?
1. Wear light clothes. Loose cotton dresses are much cooler than shorts as the air can move around your waist. Men look great in kaftans, which are what men wear in the hottest countries, for good reason!
3. Get up EARLY when it is cool and open every window to get the cool morning air in. Use a room fan to blow cool air into the room from the window. Warm air rises, so open any window that you can up high and suck cool air in from the basement or lower rooms. As soon as the temperature outside is warmer than inside, close and shutter to keep the cooled air in.
2. Close your windows and keep your shutters or curtains closed, when the sun is out. Open the windows only when the temperature outside is cooler than inside. Buy a little indoor outdoor thermometer to check.
4. Don’t put the oven on! Don’t cook anything that needs a long time. When you have cooked put the hot pan outside to stop it heating up the kitchen. Couscous is brilliant, as it needs just a small kettle of boiling water to cook it and left over couscous is great spiced up and eaten cold.
5. The simplest way to get cool is to wet your arms and face and sit in front of the fan. Soaking a t-shirt, wringing it out and then wearing it will keep you cool for ages. Wetted top sheet will help you sleep if it is really bad. Sitting with your feet in a basin of cold water helps swollen ankles .
5. Air conditioning is the obvious choice for many, but it eats electricity and that drives the problems that make the world hotter, so if you can: avoid.
Long term cooling solutions involve planting many many more shady trees . Trees can drop the temperature by 10 degrees and are of course beautiful. Painting roofs white make a big difference and not laying black tarmac everywhere makes urban areas more liveable. Fountains that people can splash in and walk through are wonderful.
Homes and offices need to lose all that glass that makes living in them literally like living in a green house. The fashion for endless glass is insane. Every new home I see with huge glass windows, has to quickly spend a fortune on blinds and curtains that are never never opened. A wall, is much cooler!!
A) a bottle of water left over night in the freezer and then sat in your lap.
B) a gel neck scarf. The gel swells up in water over night and then cools your neck all day as you wear it. It isn’t wet on the skin, you can get all sorts of attractive patterns and it is definitely the best cheap cooling device.
C) a snap towel. I don’t know how these little towels work, but they certainly do. You wet the little towel a bit, shake it to make it snap and put it on your head or neck – very cool!
D) a neck fan. This is my latest acquisition. It looks like a pair of hipster ear phones around your neck. It charges with a usb lead and works for hours blowing air round your face. It is very light and brilliant when you are moving around.
High temperatures generally mean a lack of rain and water shortages. To keep your plants alive, reuse your washing water!!
Bowls of water, that have washed dishes or hands, can be collected in a pail and used to water everything. Plants do not mind a bit of detergent/soap – in fact they love it!
Collecting shower water is difficult, but bath water is easy to collect if your bathroom is upstairs. Every evening, after a bath , I lower a pump connected to a hose pipe into the bath and pump the water straight out onto the vegetable patch or into a water butt for use later. I use bubble bath and the veg are fine! You need one person to keep an eye on the pump upstairs to turn off the electricity when the bath is empty.
I am sure many of you know all of these tricks, but this blog might just contain a new idea to keep you cool and keep your garden blooming in the dry and the heat.
This month has roared by. The start was so beautiful it took my breath away .
Peonies and sweet peas, rose gardens laden with perfume and delphiniums the colours of Greek seas.
Mornings absolutely crammed with astounding moths and then such heat that we had to close the shutters and imagine there was no outside and read scratchy novels inside.
Then the storms cleared the polluted air and we cracked open the windows again. Suddenly the lawn was fissured and brown, the peonies were long gone and the roses were fried, but the everlasting Sweetpea explosively scrambling over everything. The red currants and gooseberries were ripe to falling and the little fig tree, I was sure had died, put out green leaves.
The month isn’t over . The rain has revived so much, and June flames on !
One of the reasons I like moths are their names. The names are redolent of Victorian parsonages , where I imagine bewhiskered vicars pouring over newly caught specimens and allowing themselves a rare flight of fancy, as they coin a name for their new find.
The practice still continues. A recently named moth is a type of rustic moth is called Clancy’s Rustic after Mr Clancy, who first identified it in Britain . I caught this moth in my light trap in France last year and was impressed by the gold outline of the diagnostic kidney mark on its wing.
Other moths also have wonderfully distinctive names. My current favourites are the Uncertain and the Red- necked footman. The pinky freckled moth is rather romantically called the Maiden’s Blush and the flashy spotted moth is a Scarlet Tiger. There is a dark Grey Dagger, an Old Lady , a Gypsy Moth, an Elephant Hawk moth and a Silver Cloud, to name but a few.
It is too hot to go out today so I think I will concoct a story involving an old lady with a grey dagger who fools the red necked footman into allowing the uncertain, blushing maiden to meet the scarlet tiger, before disappearing on a silver cloud pursued by a random elephant riding a huge hawk.
I think that I might have been out in the sun too much – roll on the night!
We once rented part of a very old bake house that belonged to Garsington Manor in Oxfordshire. We were responsible for a dank patch of grass next to the village pond. In the first no mow spring, early purple orchids came up.
We moved to Wales and eventually put down a deposit on a bungalow on the edge of a venerable town. Masses of ox- eye daisies came up along with red campion and dandelions . We were not yet brave enough to let them all grow, but soon learnt that you could mow paths through your “meadow” and this semblance of order kept the neighbours happy.
In the tropical countries in which we subsequently lived, lawns were rare and generally composed of tough mat grasses that had never been meadowlands, but not cutting the grass still allowed bigger ant hills to flourish and ant loving birds to feed.
In France we bought a flat slab of lawn surrounded by low maintenance evergreens and chicken wire. Our cat was deeply unimpressed, as there was no where to hide and absolutely no life to hunt. We agreed with him and took to diligent neglect or re-wilding, as it is more fashionably called.
Birch trees, ash, dogwood, spindle and wild privet self seeded and in a corner we let them all grow. In the grass; hawks bit, eye bright, ladies smock, bugle, daisies and dandelions, sedges and plantains, fox and cubs, primroses and cowslips, teasels, evening primroses and mulleins appeared in their seasons. We collected local wild seeds and threw them in for good measure. The ox eye daisies and the hay rattle never took, like wise the foxgloves, but then it all depends of what type of soil you have and when you eventually do cut the grass.
If you never cut the grass, then bushes and finally trees will take over. We allowed this happen in a part of the garden and now that part is full of nesting birds and mice and hedgehogs. The cats now have so many places to hunt, sun and to hide that they are happy to stay safe in our garden away from the traffic and the thundering computer driven tractors.
There is no down side to not mowing your lawn. You have more time to enjoy your garden, the garden is infinitely quieter and the difference to the amount of life that will live with you in your garden, is absolutely staggering .
No Mow May, No Mow June and a bit of mowing if you don’t want a forest glade. What could be easier!???
The wild columbines in my garden are in their full glory.
I collected a few handfuls of seeds from plants in the forest on the ridge between my village and the border with Switzerland, some years ago. I chose a variety of colours, but they are all on the wild pallet of purple and pink.
Over the years they have self seeded in the shady parts of the garden and the variety of colours is amazing. Every year I try and photograph them and am always dissatisfied with the result. The flowers are down ward pointing and it seems impossible to capture their beauty and delicacy.
Some of the flowers have double and triple whorls of petals and I think their variation would have inspired Gregor Mendel to unlock the secrets of genetic variation in his famous monastic garden.
All types of bees visit the flowers . Here is a fat carpenter bee looking for nectar.
The bumble bees bite into the spurs of the flowers to reach the nectar faster and the next bees use the easy access too. You can see the bite holes in this picture.
The name columbine come from the Latin for dove and the shy down turned flower is supposed to look like a ring of doves’ heads.
Like all of the most beautiful things in life, they are transient. The warm weather will see them pollinated quickly and soon the patio will be painted with the bright confetti of their multicoloured, fallen petals.
Long live the weeds that overwhelm My narrow vegetable realm! – The bitter rock, the barren soil That force the son of man to toil; All things unholy, marked by curse, The ugly of the universe. The rough, the wicked and the wild That keep the spirit undefiled. With these I match my little wit And earn the right to stand or sit, Hope, look, create, or drink and die: These shape the creature that is I.
I came across a wonderful article describing how the Japanese seasons are separated in to five day micro seasons, after ancient Chinese segments adapted for the Japanese climate. The segments are such marvellously subtle slices from the time when deer shed their antlers to when the bears go into their dens . From when the wheat germinates under the snow, to when the first cherry blossom opens.
It made me think about a calendar for my corner of the world from when Madame Charlotte’s walnut tree finally breaks into leaf ( third week of May ) to when the snails climb up the plant stalks ( driest time in late August) . There is the time when the first crickets sing at night, to the thickest dew on the ladies mantle leaves; the full moon when the moths don’t fly ( tonight !) to the time when the first slugs devour new the iris flowers ( tomorrow!)
I think I will work on my own 72 divisions, but it can’t be done right now as this season is undeniably the busiest of them all. It can wait until the garden seems asleep and there is nothing else to do. In the meantime, take a look at this wonderful list and maybe start to plan your own version for your own corner of the world, or maybe wait until the winter when the ice forms!
I was inspired to photograph my window sill today by Flighty at flightplot.Wordpress.com . So here it is : two overwintered geraniums, two small trays of seedlings and an absurd sunflower .
The sunflower found its way from the bird seed in to the vegetable seedling trays and very soon out grew the chilli seedlings that were supposed to be germinating there. I have given it its own pot for fun and have been astonished by how much it has grown. I turn it every day and soon it will be taller than the window frame.
Of course it should be in the garden and that is the tension of this time of year. I want to plant everything out, but it is still cool at night and if I go too early , the seedlings will be stunted or worse still, frosted by the ice saints. Saint Sophia’s feast day is May 15th and it often coincides with a few days of really cold weather in this part of Europe . She is known as Kalt Sophie and can be the last frost of the spring and it isn’t advisable to put anything tender out before this date.
So my window sill is still is groaning under geraniums that have kept me cheerful all winter and flower seedlings ( cosmos) for later on the season and gherkin seedlings for tiny cucumbers harvesting when it is hot .
Two more weeks seems a long time to wait when the sun is shining and my fingers are itching to plant them outdoors. It is such a wonderful time of renewed life . Everything is far from perfect in the world, the news from the Ukraine is appalling and Russia seems to want to start World War Three, so I turn to my laden window sill; to faith in goodness and to the glory of the garden.
I fall asleep to “Just William “ books. Gentle escapism of the most perfectly dated nature allows me blot out the world and while I sleep, the moths reclaim the night.
The first wonderful specimen is an emperor moth. It is the only European member of a family which is much more wide spread in the tropics. The huge eyes are to scare away birds and other predators and when it flies in the day, it is often mistaken for a butterfly.
The second moth perched on my finger is a purple thorn . It’s Latin name is tetra luna which refers to the four half moon shapes that just catch the light from the window in this shot (at the top edge of the jagged wing.)
The third moth is a peach blossom. The improbable pink blotches on the wings look like the delicately coloured flowers of that fruit tree.
The last moth is most prized because it is new to me. It is called a pine beauty and I had great difficulty in identifying it as I was mistakenly convinced it was a type of swift moth ( due to the way it sits) . Unsurprisingly, it lives in pine trees and it’s gingered, pink appearance apparently allows it to hide in yellowing needles ( though I find that hard to believe!)
So while we sleep, some beautiful things fly free, even if it is just our dreams!
If you are a masonry bee, finding love needs some patience. These amorous bees have taken up residence in my bee houses and are very obvious at this time of year, but I really understood very little about their life and love cycle ( and probably still don’t!)
In March, apparently, the male grubs hatch and bite their way out of the mud blocked bamboo canes . They are distinguishable from the females by their white hairy faces. They then have to wait for the females to emerge and often back right back into the hollow canes to wait for their date. A line of these whiskered bees reminds me of impatient bearded blokes waiting for their girl friends outside of the ladies’ changing rooms in a clothes store .
When the long awaited ( and larger) female bee finally emerges, they buzz around each other and finally mate, sometimes wrestling her to the ground and fighting off other males. She then gathers as much pollen as she can and makes a bright yellow bed of pollen food onto which she lays her fertilized egg. This bed is then laid in the empty bee “ room” of the bee “hotel” and grub slowly eats its own bed as it grows in the quiet safely of the plugged up tube.
Some times there is no room in the hotel and the female needs to find somewhere else to lay her egg. I have been most perplexed to find myself unable to put on a gardening glove sometimes and found that the fingers of the glove were blocked by something. When teased out, the blockage was bright yellow and I now realise that I had inadvertently evicted a masonry bee lava and his tasty bed of yellow pollen.
I have put up more “hotels” this season and I hope that all the bees emerging this year will find a comfortable space to start the next generation again!
These are the last cabbages of the season. They have hung on all winter and have now been picked so the vegetable plot can be rotivated for the new growing season.
I love their tenacity, how they stay green in snow and frost and the complexity of their texture and colours .
The Alsace was once famous for growing huge cabbages, which were shredded for making choucroute or sauerkraut on the other side of the Rhine. The fields were also home to the wonderful Giant Hamster of the Alsace which is just surviving by the skin of it’s rodent teeth in the face of industrialized agriculture: protected from complete extinction in a few tiny reserves.
My best friend, when I lived in Kazakhstan, was a Russian lady with a wonderful garden behind her small house. She grew cabbages and pumpkins and walls of flowers and roses and I often think of that productive and beautiful patch of earth on the edge of the city, where we ate shaslik from the bbq with Uighur friends in the shade of a plum tree.
The Emperor Diocletian was the only Roman emperor to voluntarily abdicate power and to step down before he was killed in war or was assassinated . He decided to give up the power of his vast empire and to retire and simply grow cabbages in his garden.
When asked to return to lead his people again he is said to have replied that if you could see my cabbages you would understand the impossibility of the suggestion.
I think some current emperors could learn from this. Growing cabbages is far more noble than going to war, as history has proven. And if no one else will thank you; then maybe the Giant Hamster will.
This picture is the underside of a Victoriaamazonica leaf that had just been hauled out of the water at the botanic gardens in Basel. It was so huge and so extraordinarily spiny it had to be photographed .
Last night I watched the incomparable Green Planet from the BBC with the similarly unequalled David Attenborough. He showed the aquatic battles for light that go on in clean rivers and wetlands between the plants that float and fight so slowly in this apparently peaceful world . The most memorable Timelapse shots were of the gigantic shoots of the Amazon waterlilly sweeping the water clear of other plants to make space for the titanic unfolding of a new leaf. The leaf was armored with the fiercest dagger spines which I well remember gingerly touching in the sunshine outside of the hot house, as the Basel trams rumbled on by . The spines could crush and pierce anything that got in its way as the leaf covered the water in its metre wide plate of photosynthesising aggression.
Ironic that the flower is seen as symbolizing peaceful serenity.
After writing my last blog where I mentioned tardigrades possibly lumbering through the moss, my husband was inspired to dust off his microscope and we finally went looking for them in earnest.
Moss bears like damp places and after a very wet year our garden is full of moss. We took a random clump, soaked it overnight in a little water and put a drop of the water from the moss on a slide.
Within minutes my husband yelled that he could see one. I haven’t looked down a microscope for a spectacularly long time and took a much longer time to make out the tiny translucent blob that had to be arrowed before I could see it.
Without his help I don’t think I would have seen it, but once I was convinced it wasn’t a trick of the light, I could see the hoover bag body and the stumpy legs of this astounding creature . I had almost considered them to be mythical : but there it was, a real tardigrade!
Swimming in the drop of water were euglena , algae that can swim . All the rules are being broken by looking closely at the moss at the foot of my humble bird table.
“ To see the world in grain of sand, infinity in an hour…” Blake .
Empty gardens turn my eyes to other things and I am always delighted to see life in the oddest places . My bird table has a lichen on its roof and it flares pale green in the wintry light .
This is probably Parmotrema perlatum and it is indicative of cleanish air. Lichens are a very ancient symbiosis of an algae and fungi combining the abilities of both to create an organism capable of living in virtually every place on the planet and colonising the most unpromising surface for life .
There are two other types of lichen just on this little bit of wood. I can’t identify them with confidence but their compact, complex beauty astounds me.
The post of the bird table is streaked with green algae and it seems fluorescent on this dark day. At the foot of the table is an up turned slab that is being slowly smothered in moss. I have thought of brushing it off, but for what reason? Why would a bare concrete slab be more lovely than this moist moss garden that I like to hope harbours mysterious tardigrades clambering slowly through like teddy bears?
Oh and the sparrows come for breadcrumbs and scraps everyday on the table of the bird feeder. They harry me with indignant squawking should I forget them and dare to step out of the house empty handed.
They are not however the only life here, the table it’s self is almost more extraordinary, if a deal quieter, than the hungry birds themselves!